Thursday, March 23, 2017

How to Read the Bible 4 - What the Bible is NOT

This title is likely to come up over and over again, whenever I get to a point of needing to get something off my chest. OK, here we go.

The Bible is not a proof of anything.


Caps Lock and everything!

Let me put it another way: if no one had written anything Jesus said down, that wouldn't change the facts of what he said. If God did something amazing in and through Jesus, people writing about it doesn't change whether it really happened or not.

This is really important, because the Bible doesn't make things true, the Bible testifies to the truth. The Bible is not the thing that we are looking for, it's a window through which we can see the amazing work of God in the world. It's a gracious gift to us from our spiritual ancestors (and, we believe, God), it's the testimony of the founders of our faith.

Why is this important? Well, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that our current understanding is like looking at ourselves in a dirty mirror. So, we have to acknowledge firstly that what we see is not a perfect image. Then, we have to make sure that we are not distracted by the dirt and rust of the mirror, but see through it, at the image which is the real object of our attention. And finally, what we see is a reflection, not the real thing. It can help us know more about that real thing, but it's still an image.

In the same way we are looking through the window that is the Bible. We aren't seeing everything as clearly as we'd like, we're getting distracted by the crud on the window pane. What we can see isn't the whole picture, but the testimony of the church over 2,000 years is that what we can see is enough to give us an outline of the shape of God.

Jesus-shaped. God is Jesus-shaped.

How to Read the Bible 3 - Why is There a Bible?

The oldest Hebrew reference to the city of Jerusalem, outside the Bible
Why is there a Bible?

It's one of those questions... It has many different answers.
In this post, just one answer (the others will come): it's there because people learnt how to write things down, and while it's likely that the stories that are told in the Bible were first told by word of mouth, eventually someone decided to write them down. That was no small thing in the ancient world. Only really important things got written down. You didn't write your shopping list on a piece of papyrus. Unless you were the king, in which case your shopping list was probably pretty long and you had plenty of papyrus.

When someone tells me something important, I pull out my phone and write it down. It might be something I need to do, or a book recommendation, or a future meeting. I know that I'll forget whatever it is unless I write it down. That wasn't how writing worked in the ancient world - people were trained to memorise that kind of stuff, so they wouldn't have to write it down. This means that when people told stories about Jesus, we can have quite a high level of confidence that people were able to pass on the right information from person to person. From the little we know, it would appear that the teaching of Jesus, the miracle stories and the week leading up to Jesus's execution were all memorised very faithfully. For example, when the gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the same story, they sometimes change little details, but the words of Jesus are treated with a high degree of reverence.

By the time these stories got written down there had already been a great deal of arguing and editing done. These were the stories that (probably) many different churches were telling about Jesus. Writing them down gave them a permanence that we can't feel now. If I make a spelling mistake, it's no big deal. In fact, if I don't like what I've written I can just press backspace on my computer and start again. But writing things down in the ancient world was significant: we're going to tell this story and not that one.

Christians say that one of the most important things about their faith is the belief that Jesus was both human and divine at the same time. Jesus wasn't God pretending to be human, he really was human. And God too. The Bible is similar. It's not a divine book that fell from heaven and is just pretending to be a human creation, it really is a human creation that also reveals God in a special way. When we treat the Bible as untouchable we deny God's amazing partnership with humankind.

In the next big post I'm going to talk about how all the different parts of the Bible got put together, how they were chosen and how we got a thing called the Bible, but before that I want to go off piste for a quick rant about something the Bible isn't.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How to Read the Bible 2 - Why Now?

We are living in strange times. It's possible to become President of the United States by telling people what they want to hear, even though it's patently false. It's possible for a British politician to decry experts and keep his job (at least for a few weeks). Have a look at this video (it's not too long), and you will see the seeds of 2016 sown ten years earlier:

You have two people arguing at cross purposes: one is saying that facts are indisputable, while morals are relative. The other says that morals are universal, while facts can be used to 'prove' anything. Of course the phrase, 'You can prove anything with facts' is funny because it is the foundation of science, yet the taxi driver doesn't seem to believe that facts prove anything of value; there's something else going on altogether that facts can't reach.

Just over a hundred years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that facts would ever go out of fashion. Science, and its children technology and industry, were in the ascendancy, with the promise of solving all our problems. This faith persists to this day through the work of people like Richard Dawkins, although even fellow scientists often see him nowadays as a slightly over-zealous believer in science.

The era of facts and science is probably not really ending, but we are definitely coming to realise that facts are not going to meet every human need. This disillusionment is what sociologists and philosophers call postmodernity. No one really knows whether modernity is just having a bad couple of decades, whether its having a full-blown midlife crisis or if its suffering a terminal illness. It's definitely looking a bit off.

Why is this important? Well, mainly because Christianity in the West has, like every other part of society, been driven by facts. When it comes to the Bible, the most important question was, 'Which bits are facts?', the implication being that the rest could be discarded. We'll come back to the different ways people sliced and diced The Bible to get at 'the facts', but for now it's worth recognising that until recently the whole of the western church was really wrestling over this one question: 'Is it true?' In this instance, true meant scientifically verifiable.

This question drove many Christians to two extremes, leaving others stranded in no man's land. On the one hand, you had theologians and then church leaders answering the question thus: 'No, of course it's not true. These primitive people didn't have the understanding we have so they made up fairy stories to give their lives meaning. The Bible is a wonderful record of their innocent wonderings, but it's not really much use to us today. Jesus seems like a nice person, although he was clearly deluded, if he really existed at all.' I recently heard such 'liberals' recently described as 'the kind of person who tells you a joke at a party and then proceeds to explain to you why the joke is funny, thereby stopping the joke from being funny.' They called themselves liberals because they saw themselves as free thinkers.

The other stream accepted the premise of liberalism - that the Bible is only valuable insofar as it provides us with scientific facts - and went the other way, declaring that the Bible had to be completely true and without error in every way. 'If the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe it,' William Jennings Bryan said at the now infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. These believers claimed they were merely shoring up the fundamentals of Christianity - hence their moniker 'Fundamentalists' - but when the complete inerrancy of the Bible in all matters was declared one of those fundamentals, the terms of the battle were agreed upon: either the Bible is a perfect textbook in every subject, or it's dead, worthy only of half-hearted picking over the bones.

Postmodernity allows us to lay down this battle, it's not our fight. In his essay, The Bible in a Postmodern Age(1), Terence Freitheim suggests that in our new world we could approach the Bible in three ways:

  • Pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like and discard the rest.
  • Declare that there is a single vision of God in the Bible, and any dissonant passages just haven't been understood yet.
  • Seek a 'unified' vision of God in the Bible, admitting that there are many texts that don't seem to fit
I wonder which of these options appeals to you? It might tell you how postmodern you are!

(1)Thompson, Richard P and Oord, Thomas J (Eds). The Bible Tells Me So: Reading the Bible as Scripture. SacraSage. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

How to Read the Bible 1 - Why?

Welcome! You are in at the beginning, which is always fun. Day one, chapter one. Welcome to our journey to finding a way to read The Bible. Which sounds kind of silly, since there are loads of English translations - why not just pick one up and start at page one? But if you've ever tried to read The Bible, you'll know what I mean.

I argue a lot. Not with my family, they're actually rather great. Mainly with friends of friends on Facebook. My Facebook profile says, succinctly, 'Theology. Politics. Self Deprecation.' I hope that sums me up, Facebook-wise, although the self deprecation only goes so far. If people are not thinking straight, the deprecation might start to flow the other way a bit. It's a weakness of mine.

One of the things that reverses the flow of deprecation is the phrase, 'The Bible clearly says...' followed by some sweeping statement based on a single verse from a single chapter in a single book of the Bible. We're normally 'discussing' some practical application of the Christian faith like politics or ethics, and this phrase is intended to fall like a hammer blow and silence all dissent.

At this point, I'm not going to try to deconstruct all the things that upset me about the phrase, 'The Bible clearly says...' If I did, I would essentially write one long post instead of the many that I plan to write, and invite others to write, over the coming months.

Let me just say, if the Bible was clear about everything we wouldn't disagree so much about it. We would agree on what it says and then disagree about what to do about it. But that's not the case. In 2 Peter 3:16 (if you don't know how the weird numbering thing works, we'll get to that eventually) the writer comments on Paul's letters, specifically stating that parts of them are hard to understand. So even the people who wrote the Bible didn't think The Bible was clear and obvious all the time.

Also, I am a bit antsy about taking about The Bible. Capital T, Capital B. NO ONE put this thing together because it made sense as a whole, because there was a single coherent argument, or a single story being told. The 66 'books' (lots of them aren't really books) that make up The Bible were argued about, kicked out, allowed back in, loved, hated, ignored... but (thank God) no one ever got control of them.

Martin Luther, one of the early leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wanted to get rid of a few books because they didn't fit with the argument he was trying to make, but he lost that battle. The Bible is not a single book with 66 chapters that proceed from A to Z in a logical manner. Just lay that one down. If you try to read it like a textbook or a novel you are going to get a sore head.

OK Simon, if it's so hard to read and understand, why don't we just leave it behind? You seem to be saying The Bible doesn't really hold together, doesn't really make that much sense. It's really, really old, how relevant can it be?

Here's a quick answer, which is also the reason I'm starting this project.

I follow Jesus of Nazareth, the one who came to be called The Messiah or Christ, also The Son of God. Not only do I follow him, but I believe that Jesus shows us what God is like. The Bible is my only route back to him, to those who knew him and told stories about him, to his earliest followers, to the world that he lived in. At the very, very least, I have to find a way to make sense of those parts of the Bible that speak directly about him. (We'll come to the other stuff eventually.) If I think God is around, and God is like Jesus, it's really important to get some idea of what Jesus was like. Thus, we have to find a way to read The Bible that helps us find Jesus.

This is personal. If I can't make some kind of sense of the Bible, then who or what is it that I'm following? It's also collective: the community that I'm part of ( is trying to work out how we can handle The Bible honourably. By that, I mean honouring the text, the people that created the text, the people in the room with me right now as we read the text together, and the millions of fellow-followers who have wrestled with the text over 2,000 years.

Most of what will get written here will have been explored together first in revive. If this is just a conversation between us, that's no problem. If anyone else wants to join in, you're welcome.

In the next post I briefly want to explore why many people have lost confidence in The Bible, and why now might be a great time to explore it in a new way. Then we'll get under way properly! See you soon.

Much love,